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A Labour government will breathe life back into our NHS

4 min read

Under Labour, patients would receive the quality of care they deserve, writes shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth ahead of conference

The 70th anniversary of our NHS has rightly been a cause for celebration. As the first health system in any western society to offer universal free medical care, based on need not wealth, our NHS is undoubtedly one of the greatest social innovations in history.

For me it represents a simple, but far-reaching ideal – healthcare should not be an advantage for a privileged few, but the moral right of all.

As its visionary founder Nye Bevan said, it truly was a civilising moment in our nation’s history. Seven decades of unrivalled success and progress later, Labour’s creation stands proudly as the envy of the world.

And its 1.6 million staff who care for us from cradle to grave embody the very best of our national values and principles. Yet the truth is that we would be doing our brilliant NHS staff a great disservice if we merely relied on their goodwill.

For our NHS is in crisis.

The number of people on NHS waiting lists has now reached 4.3 million – a 10-year high. Last year 2.5 million people waited over four hours in A&E, up from 350,000 in 2009-10. Cancer waiting times of over 62 days for treatment have doubled since 2010.

Last winter was one of the worst we’ve ever witnessed. Average bed occupancy was a staggering 94.4%, almost 10% higher than the 85% maximum bed occupancy deemed safe by clinicians. Over 185,000 vulnerable and elderly patients were stuck in the back of ambulances for over 30 minutes because of unprecedented pressures on emergency departments.

It culminated in an A&E consultant, an army doctor who commanded a field hospital in Afghanistan, publicly apologising for the “third world” conditions in his emergency department.

We’re also witnessing an acute workforce shortage. We have a vacancy gap across the NHS of 100,000, including more than 40,000 nurses, 11,000 doctors, 12,000 nursing support staff and 11,000 scientific, technical and therapeutic staff across the NHS. GP numbers have fallen by over 1,000 nationwide.

This crisis also extends to mental health provision, which for too long has remained the Cinderella service of the NHS – undervalued and underfunded.

Since September 2009, there has been an 11% cut in the number of mental health nurses working in the NHS. The average wait for child and adolescent mental health services is nearly two months.

Merely posturing about parity of esteem is not good enough. That’s why Labour will substantially increase spending on mental health, and deliver a world-class child and adolescent mental health service.

Our NHS has a proud history of innovation and technological advancement. British doctors and scientists have developed the clinical thermometer, the intraocular lens, the CT scanner and the MRI scanner. Our NHS has pioneered the first heart, lung and liver transplants.

And yet my own research has found that thousands of vital, lifesaving pieces of NHS equipment are over 10 years old and in dire need of replacement. At the same time, the NHS remains the world’s biggest purchaser of fax machines, with at least 11,620 still in operation across the health service, costing thousands of pounds a year to maintain.

This is the culmination of years of government cuts to capital budgets which has led to a £5bn backlog of repairs to crumbling hospitals unable to replace their outdated equipment.

The government is also doing nothing to halt the creeping privatisation of our health service. Since the Tories’ 2012 Health and Social Care Act the excesses of the private sector have taken hold, to damaging effect for patients and staff. Returning our NHS into public hands is therefore critical.

Labour’s vision is for healthcare to be delivered through partnership and planning, rather than competition and markets.

Simultaneously, our social care system, so critical in easing pressures on the NHS, is on its knees, with cuts of £6.3bn since 2010 leaving more than 400,000 older people without the publicly funded social care they need.

That’s why we have pledged almost £9bn extra for health and social care in the first year of a Labour government, compared to £4bn under the Tories.

Thanks to pressure from patients, staff and the Labour party, the government was recently forced to redraw the funding settlement. Yet every expert agrees the plans still fall far short of tackling the crisis.

When one factors in the government’s omission of funding for social care, public health (which faces cuts of £800m by 2020-21), staff training and a backlog of billions in repairs, it becomes clear that, under the Tories, patients won’t receive the quality of care they deserve.

Our NHS is one of the most powerful engines of social justice the world over. It is unquestionably the pride of Britain.

On the 70th anniversary of the NHS, Labour will be leading the fight to ensure a properly funded, public National Health Service. 

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South and shadow secretary of state for health

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